Today we are covering one of the most heartbreaking and bizarre cases in modern medical history. The story of David Reimer has been used as both a platform for reform around acceptance of Intersex identities and as a weapon against transgender children transitioning at a young age. What is more interesting though is that David Reimer was neither intersex nor transgender, yet his body and his legacy have been used as an exhibition for the rest of the world. Nothing better encapsulates the toxicity of social standards around masculinity and femininity than this story. And while Reimer was not part of the LGBTQ+ community, his case and his abuse shed light on the many harms done against queer individuals. So, let us start at the beginning of what would become known as the “John/Joan” case.
On August 22, 1965, Ron and Janet Reimer welcomed two twin boys named Bruce and Brian. For the most part, the twins were healthy, yet around six months it became evident that they were both suffering from a condition known as phimosis. This is when the foreskin on the penis stretches over the glands and cannot be pulled back which can cause some pain during sex or urination. A local doctor arranged to perform a circumcision on the twins and began with Bruce. However, rather than using the standard tool of the scalpel, the doctor used the unconventional method of cauterization. A process of burning off the unnecessary tissue that resulted in Bruce’s circumcision being botched and extreme damage being done to the penis.
There is no record of how bad the damage truly was, though writers have insisted it was destroyed beyond repair. Reimer’s biographer John Colapinto has implied the penis was either severed or burned beyond function. The author wrote that one psychiatrist summurized the extent of the injury this way, “He will be unable to consummate marriage or have normal heterosexual relations; he will have to recognize that he is incomplete, physically defective, and that he must live apart….” There has been some challenge to the authenticity of this previous statement as it was retold by Reimer’s parents more than 30 years later.
Yet the sentiment in the psychiatrist’s observation towards those considered “defective” still lingers. Though Bruce certainly would not have had an easy road ahead, to imply he would be incomplete and live apart showed the bias against Intersex and Trans individuals. While the stressor on his inability to have ‘normal heterosexual relations’ categorized non-heteronormative relationships as inferior. From this analysis, both the parents and the general practitioner agreed that they needed outside help. The frantic parents spent the next year and a half looking for a solution for their young child. Meanwhile, Bruce’s brother Brian was not given a circumcision and his phimosis healed naturally. Just as it seemed they were running out of options, Ron and Janet saw a Canadian News Segment that featured renowned sexologist, John Money.
Money had spent the previous 15 years establishing his reputation as a psychologist and sexologist in the United States. Born in New Zealand, Money had graduated with a double masters from the Victoria University of Wellington. Shortly after his graduation, John took a position on staff at the University of Otago. This was the first time that he crossed a boundary as a professional, using his authority as a psychologist to justify overriding the rights of another individual. It is not clear if Money believed his position and education gave him this level of authority, or if he was simply driven by his own questions and understanding. Whatever the reason, when famed author Janet Frame studied under him in 1945, she submitted an essay that described thoughts of suicide. Money had Frame committed, which resulted in 8 years of confinement and a near lobotomy for the young writer. 
The hardships of Janet Frame cannot be fully attributed to John Money. However, he did play a pivotal role in her life and two decades later he would play a much more life-altering role in another young person’s life. After immigrating to the U.S. in 1947, John earned his Ph.D. at Harvard and took a job at John Hopkins University where he would work for the next 56 years. It is clear that Money’s greatest and only real passion in life was his career and studies. He was married briefly during the 1950s but the union fell apart. That could have been a result of John’s views on sex and his own bisexuality, which he treated in almost a clinical manner. Or the divorce could have simply been due to his sole devotion to his research.
Throughout the 50s, John Money began to write in-depth about gender and sex and the differences between the two. Our understanding of gender identity today stems from Money’s research. He became fascinated especially with Transgender and Intersex people, who he believed proved that gender was a construct. His focus in the 1950s was mostly on Intersex folks and through that work, he coined the term and definition of the phrase ‘gender-role’. Whereas society saw gender strictly through the lens of masculine and feminine, to be assigned based on an individual’s genitals, Money broadened the idea of gender to encompass a person’s full identity. This removed the idea that genitals were the sole basis for gender identity and expression. It was a revolutionary development for the trans and intersex community.
By 1965 Money had established himself as an expert on gender and John Hopkins awarded him the funds for the John Hopkins Gender Identity Clinic. Money and his colleague Claude Migeon performed their first sex reassignment/affirmation surgery the following year. Note: the correct terminology for trans surgeries is sex affirming surgery. However, in the case of John Money, reassignment is a better description. For several decades many of his surgeries were reassignment surgeries and not affirming ones as several of the patients operated on never had any say in their surgeries or their assigned identities. But it was his research at the John Hopkins Gender Identity Clinic that landed Dr. Money a spot on the Canadian television news program This Hour Has Seven Days. In February of 1967, the parents of Bruce and Brian Reimer saw the sexologist on television. Janet later recalled, “He was saying that it could be that babies are born neutral and you can change their gender. Something told me that I should get in touch with this Dr. Money.”
There seems little doubt that Money was thrilled at the case that had fallen in his lap. The idea that Intersex children should be assigned a gender at birth had been a part of history forever. Most parents made their best guess and raised the intersex baby by the social norms of whatever gender they had chosen. But here Money saw an opportunity to truly test his theories about gender. Bruce Reimer would be forced to live the rest of his life, or at least the first half of his life, without a penis. There were no penile construction surgeries that could be performed on an infant and the surgical process for adults was still in its early stages. At best, Bruce could hope for surgery in his 20s and in his lifetime he would never have full function. Yet rather than embracing the ambiguous genitalia (ambiguous means ‘unclear’ and is often used to describe atypical genitals and gonads), Money proposed a different solution.
He convinced the parents to raise their mutilated son as a girl. The doctor mistakenly did not realize that the social constructs of gender expression were not the same as the personal concept of gender identity. Money believed that the Reimer’s simply raised Bruce as a girl, he would adapt to the role placed upon him. This seems to contradict Money’s own work as he operated on transgender individuals. If a person could learn to conform to a role placed upon them, then why did transgender people exist? It seems that John was mostly tempted by the prospects of the study. The fact that Bruce’s penis had been destroyed was only one motivating factor in Money’s experiment. There was also the tantalizing point that Bruce was a twin.
Over the previous 20 years, details about the Nazi experiments in the death camps had slowly started to filter back to the United States. Dr. Josef Mengele had experimented on 732 sets of twins during World War 2 and over 3,000 children in total. Mengele was possibly the cruelest of all Hitler’s henchmen and by far one of the most hunted Nazis when the war ended. His hellish experiments on children were the stuff of nightmares. And the doctor was especially partial to twins since their identical makeup made them great test subjects. One twin would be used as a control subject and untouched, while the other was subjected to torturous experiments. When the twin being experimented on died, the controlled twin was also killed and both children were dissected and further examined. Mengele was especially cruel to twins that were of Romani descent (a mix of Indonesian and Aryan ethnicity).
By the 1960s, stories and first-hand accounts of Mengele’s atrocities were told as Nazi hunters scoured the globe in search of the escaped doctor. But while his methods were certainly not condoned, the practice of experimenting on twins has always long been a favored tactic in the medical field. And John Money now had a seemingly perfect opportunity land in his lap. He could prove his theories on gender through Bruce and Brian Reimer. In order to further his efforts, he convinced the Reimer’s to grant approval for an orchiectomy (the removal of the testes) on 22-month-old Bruce. They also agreed to hormonal treatments, gender therapy, and the construction of a vulva. To complete the transition, the parents changed Bruce’s name to Brenda.
For the next 12 years, Dr. Money tracked the case he called “John/Joan” gaining widespread attention and acclaim. He claimed his studies and so-called transition of patient ‘Joan’ were a success even long after he stopped seeing the Reimer children. In some ways, it was because of the “John/Joan” case that many sexologists and endocrinologists developed better treatments and care for Intersex and Transgender children. But the fundamental concept of gender identity was still being developed and the experiment of Bruce and Brian Reimer caused immense psychological harm. A fact that would be used as a weapon against the queer community by others who also did not understand gender identity.
The word Intersex is defined, by InterAct Advocates for Intersex Youth, as an umbrella term that covers a variety of unique variations in reproductive or sex anatomy. Variations may appear in a person’s chromosomes, genitals, or internal organs like testes or ovaries. Some intersex traits are identified at birth, while others may not be discovered until puberty or later in life. Statistics show that 1.7% of the population is Intersex, meaning well over 5 million Americans are Intersex and nearly 120 million people world wide have some type of intersex variation. It is important to note that an Intersex person is born with these traits and they are not a result of outside circumstance, unlike the case of Bruce Reimer where his gender was altered and controlled by doctors.
Similarly, The National Center for Transgender Equality defines the umbrella term of Transgender as such: When we’re born, a doctor usually says that we’re male or female based on what our bodies look like. Most people who were labeled male at birth turn out to actually identify as men, and most people who were labeled female at birth grow up to be women. But some people’s gender identity – their innate knowledge of who they are – is different from what was initially expected when they were born. Most of these people describe themselves as transgender. Trans is often used as shorthand for transgender.
Again, we see that this term did not apply to Bruce Reimer who had no say in his gender identity. In fact, Reimer’s gender identity was actually assigned to him twice as an infant. Once when he was assigned male at birth and 22 months later when he was assigned female by Dr. Money. And for the first 13 years of Bruce’s life he had no idea of his first gender assignment. Yet he never felt right in the gender that was thrust upon him. In this way, Bruce Reimer’s frustrations mirrored those of many Intersex and Transgender people. Through an unethical and abusive method, Money had managed to prove his point about gender. Only not in the ways he thought he was proving his point and certainly not in accurate reporting of his studies.
At age 13, Bruce Reimer was finally told the truth about the experiment he had been in for the majority of his life. The young man felt disgusted and out of touch with his body. He struggled with what is known as dysphoria, in which an individual feels their gender does not align with the gender they were assigned. But most disturbingly, Bruce was suicidal over his appointments with Dr. Money. He told his parents that if they made him see the doctor again he would take his own life. Finally, Janet and Ron relented and ended Bruce and Brian’s therapy with Dr. Money. Within a few months Bruce reclaimed his male identity and had his name legally changed from Brenda to David. He began testosterone treatments and underwent several sex affirmation surgeries.
However, the full damage of Money’s so-called treatment would not be uncovered until 17 years later. During this time the doctor continued to grow in popularity and prominence. David and Brian Reimer ended their sessions with Money in 1980, but throughout the following two decades the doctor continued to speak about the great successes of the ‘John/Joan’ case. He wrote several books that discussed the study, including one titled Man Woman, Boy Girl, and expanded his thoughts about gender, sex, and sexual orientation. It was Dr. John Money who coined the term ‘sexual orientation’, along with expanding and revolutionizing modern concepts of sexual identity. Meanwhile, David and Brian Reimer struggled with chronic depression and social adjustment. David married and he and his wife adopted three children. Though he settled down and seemed to have a fairly average life, the secrets of the past destroyed any hope of peace.
In March of 1997, psychiatrist Keith Sigmudson and biologist Milton Diamond released an article in the Archives of Adolescent and Pediatric Medicine that finally challenged John Money’s infamous ‘John/Joan’ case. The medical world was rocked by the proposal that one of the most popular and revered studies of the modern era was actually a major failure. What’s more, evidence seemed to suggest that Dr. Money either knew of this failure, or deliberately never followed up with his subjects for fear of learning the truth. But shocking stories in the world of medicine rarely break through to mainstream media. That would change with the December 1997 issue of The Rolling Stone magazine. When the article, The True Story of John / Joan, was released by journalist John Colapinto.
It is quickly apparent that Colapinto detested the mere name of John Money. This disdain may have been purely based in the journalist’s discoveries during the story of David and Brian Reimer. Yet there are also doses of homophobia and transphobia mixed in with Colapinto’s attack on the doctor. And there is Money’s own previous controversies that had drawn outrage over his defense and lenient stance on pedophilia. The doctor often tried to make distinctions in pedophilia, implying that some acts and attractions may be normal. He told the Journal of Paedophelia in 1991, “If I were to see the case of a boy aged ten or eleven who’s intensely erotically attracted toward a man in his twenties or thirties, if the relationship is totally mutual, and the bonding is genuinely totally mutual … then I would not call it pathological in any way.”
Money’s stance on pedophiles certainly were heavily implied to connect the discoveries in the ‘John/Joan’ case. David and Brian Reimer recounted their story to Colapinto. Dr. Money had seen the twins roughly once every year between 1968 and 1980. By the time the twins were 6 years old he began to have joint and one-on-one sessions with the two subjects. His questions from their earliest recollection were deeply personal and focused prominently on sex. Colapinto stated that Money believed it was essential for children to understand the difference for children to understand the differences between sex. In fact, Money himself stated this and presented his methods in his 1975 book Sexual Signatures of Being a Man or a Woman (which he wrote in the middle of his case study of ‘John/Joan’). The physician wrote, “Explicit sexual pictures can and should be used as part of a child’s sex education [to] reinforce his or her own gender identity and gender role.”
His practices were confirmed by David and Brian who stated “He would show us pictures of kids, boys and girls, with no clothes on,” [the twins stated and also recalled] that Dr. Money also showed them pictures of adults engaged in sexual intercourse: “He’d say to us, ‘I want to show you pictures of things that moms and dads do.’ “ But the doctor went even further in his attempts to condition gender roles and identity into the minds of the young twins. He forced the children to strip naked, inspect each others genitals, and imitate sexual acts on one another. Sometimes Money would have as many as 6 colleagues in a session with him watching the children. And if they defied his orders to perform, he became enraged and intimidated the siblings until they complied with his demands.
Early on both David and Brian realized that David did not fit the female role assigned to him. There was nothing about David that wanted or felt like a woman, and Brian watched as his brother was constantly forced into a role he hated. Young David was bullied at school, rejected by his peers, and disdained by his teachers. Ironically, the very thing that doctors stated would happen to David if he did not take on the role of girl, was happening to him because he was living in a role the world could see did not fit him. Despite the evidence, Money refused to acknowledge David’s unhappiness and insisted that the discomfort came because David had not yet undergone vaginal construction surgery. When David staunchly refused the surgery, the doctor again became angry, showing pictures of young naked girls and asking “Don’t you want to be a normal girl?”. But David did NOT want to be a quote-on-quote, normal girl or any kind of girl.
However, Money deliberately twisted the truth in his annual report of the ‘John/Joan’ case that year. In the 1975 update, published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, the doctor added this statement about David: “No one [outside the family] knows [that she was born a boy]. Nor would they ever conjecture. Her behavior is so normally that of an active little girl, and so clearly different by contrast from the boyish ways of her twin brother, that it offers nothing to stimulate one’s conjectures.” This summary was printed when the twins were 10 years old and both were actively reporting David’s difficulties adjusting to his assigned role both socially and privately.
It is uncertain how long Dr. Money’s abuse would have been allowed to continue if not for school intervention when David was 11. Middle school brings out most of our fears and nerves and for David Reimer, it further multiplied years of anxiety, stress, and social isolation. The teachers at the school notified the Child’s Guidance Clinic of their young student’s inability to form connections with classmates as well as David’s struggle to conform to gender roles. Throughout his lengthy article, John Colapinto repeatedly refers to David’s defiance of feminine traits as if trying to prove that this should have shown David was a boy. Yet gender roles are completely socially contrived and are used to subject women to a patriarchal culture. One’s resistance to gender roles has nothing to do with their gender identity.
But David’s eventual session with the Guidance Clinic’s psychiatrist did lend insight into the disturbing reality of David Reimer’s situation. The physician wrote that David had, “strong fears that something [had] been done to [their] genital organs” and that [David] had had “some suicidal thoughts.” Concerns caused David’s case to be passed along to the head of Psychiatry, Dr. Keith Sigmundson. Once the psychiatrist learned the truth about David’s case, a fact the budding teen still was not aware of, Sigmundson hesitantly moved forward with Dr. Money’s plan. Yet as the case developed the physician became more and more uncomfortable with Money’s methods. After referring David to a colleague, Dr. M, for evaluation, the outside party reported that ‘Joan’ told the psychiatrist, “[I’m] just a boy with long hair in girl’s clothes”. Despite this claim, Dr. M. still tried to convince David to go through with the vaginal surgery that Dr. Money was pushing.
Keith Sigmundson on the other hand became even more resistant to the idea. He wrote to Money and elaborated on David’s trouble at school and his continued talk of suicide. Johne Money responded that Joans’ troubles were a result of their refusal to complete their vaginal construction. And stated that this fear was rooted in a fear of hospitals and not in the truth that David Reimer did not want the surgery because he feared it would erase his male identity completely. Money also attributed David’s increasing resistance to hormone treatments to Money’s fabricated ‘fear of hospitals’.
While the vaginal surgery was delayed, Money decided to introduce estrogen pills to David at age 12. Previously, David had been on hormone blockers which prevents puberty from happening. In fact, many trans and intersex children today are placed on hormone blockers which is completely safe provided the child wants to be on the blockers. The worst side effects if the child stops the blockers are a delayed onset of puberty traits such as breast development, body hair, acne, and a drop in the vocal range. For children questioning their gender identity, this gives them more time to become aware of themselves. However, in the case of David Reimer, he was never given the option to choose this option.
When Dr. Money introduced the estrogen pills David asked what they would do. His Dad replied, “It’s to make you wear a bra”. David had a meltdown, he didn’t want to wear a bra and he didn’t want to be a girl! But John Money came through with the lies and intimidation as always. He told David he would grow unwanted limbs if he did not take the pills, an even more horrifying fate for a child that already felt so socially ostracized. David relented and took the pills. In his annual update Dr. Money wrote “Now prepubertal in age, the girl has . . . a feminine gender identity and role, distinctly different from that of her brother…The final and conclusive evidence awaits the appearance of romantic interest and erotic imagery.”
But the Doctor never had the chance to follow through on his long failed experiment. This was the year David threatened suicide if his parents made him see Money again and it was at this time that his parents revealed the true nature of David’s sexual identity. Sessions were abruptly ended with Dr. Money and both David and Brian entered intense therapy sessions. For the next two decades Keith Sigmundson treated the twins, helping David get on testosterone and undergo his sex affirming surgeries. Both of the boys struggled with depression and trauma from the Money experiments.
For over 10 years the story of the ‘John/Joan’ case faded from the medical scene, only reappearing when John Money wanted to tout his own success. But in Honolulu, Hawaii an old doctor smelled bullshit. Milton Diamond had not approved of John Money’s forced gender assignment in the ‘John/Joan’ case. After Money claimed he ended his studies, Diamond began to publish an AD in the American Psychiatric Society Journal. ‘Will Whoever Is Treating The Twins Please Report’ the bulletin read. Each time it posted Dr. Sigmundson saw it and wanted to reach out, but he wasn’t ready. Finally in 1991 the two doctors connected and began to discuss the case slowly over the next 3 years.
In 1994, David, his mother and his wife agreed to sit for Diamonds interviews. This eventually lead to the 1997 breakthrough article in the Archives of Adolescent and Pediatric Medicine. Keith Sigmundson had said he never spoke about the case publicly because he was “scared to death of John Money”. Money’s power was evident as the New England Journal, American Pediatric, and American Psychiatric medical magazines all turned down Diamond and Sigmundson’s article. But once the article was finally published in Archives the dam burst open. This was further expounded by Colapinto’s follow up in The Rolling Stone just a few months later.
In typical, arrogant fashion, Dr. Money shot back against the accusations and criticisms as a “threat to the feminist movement!”. He was still caught up in his own broken thinking that gender construction was imperative to social adjustment. Insisting that the attacks were actually on his choice to raise David as a girl and not on the fact that he assigned a gender identity to David and then forced him to conform through sexist gender roles. In one of his final reports on the ‘John/Joan’ case, Money had triumphantly declared the study was “dramatic proof that the gender-identity option is open at birth for normal infants,”. However, in their article, Diamond had stated that Money’s study actually proved that sexual orientation and gender identity were instilled at birth and could not be socially constructed through forced gender roles.
Over the previous 30 years, Money’s work have caused immense damage to many Intersex children who had been assigned a gender based on the size and shape of their genitals. Diamond and Sigmundson’s article on the story of David Reimer changed the narrative around gender identity. Privately, John Money had long admitted to a few close confidants that he had failed in his experiment and abandoned his methods. Yet publicly he would defend the ‘John/Joan’ case until he withdrew from public life due to Parkinson’s in 2002. He received the Magnus Hirschfeld Medal that same year and donated a large portion of his art collection to a New Zealand Art Gallery.
While Money lived a long and full life, the same would not be said for David and Brian Reimer. On July 1, 2002, at age 36, Brian Reimer overdosed on antidepressants, passing away the same year John Money received his award for Sexual Research. Two years later David Reimer drove to a grocery store parking lot and shot himself. He was 38 years old and never got to live to be even half the age of John Money who outlived the twins by 2 years. Dr. Money passed away from complications around his Parkinson’s diagnosis in 2006 one day before his 85th birthday.
After John Colapinto’s groundbreaking article, he began work for a book that was published in 2001. As Nature Made Him; The Boy Who Was Raised a Girl, brought the story of David and Brian further into the spotlight. The previous year, BBC’s Horizon had aired the episode The Boy Who Was Turned into a Girl. Four years later Dr. Money and the Boy with No Penis aired on Horizon’s as well. Several other articles and series have featured the heartbreaking story of the twins. Today the horrific experiment serves as a reminder that gender identity cannot be forced on anyone regardless of circumstances at hand. It further develops the subject of sex, orientation, identity, and expression.
Your recommended resources are Dr. Money and the Boy With No Penis available on YouTube and linked on our script. Or John Calopinto’s original article The True Story of John/Joan which is also available for free and linked on our script. We also suggest you check out the Intersex Society and Advocates for Intersex Youth to learn more about what it means to be Intersex and how you can better be an ally.
- As Nature Made Him; The Boy Who Was Raised A Girl by John Colapinto, copyright 2001
- Wiki (Reimer) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Reimer
- Embryon – https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/david-reimer-and-john-money-gender-reassignment-controversy-johnjoan-case
- Intersex Society – https://isna.org/faq/reimer/
- Money – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Money
- Frame – An Angel At My Table by Janet Frame
- The Man Who Invented Gender by Terry Goldie, UBC Press 2014 (PDF File)
- The True Story of John and Joan 1997 Rolling Stone Article
- Mengele (1) – https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30933718
- Mengele (2) – https://www.history.com/news/nazi-twin-experiments-mengele-eugenics
- Intersex – https://interactadvocates.org/intersex-definitions/
- Trans Equality Network – https://transequality.org/issues/resources/frequently-asked-questions-about-transgender-people